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Residents Sound Off on Penn State Plan to Convert Power Plant to Gas

by on October 31, 2013 6:50 AM

Penn State's plan to convert the West Campus Steam Plant from coal to natural gas generated a number of negative comments during a public hearing Wednesday night.

Representatives from Penn State and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection were at the State College Area High School to answer questions. Many of the residents who spoke expressed concerns about safety and the environment.

Janet Engeman wanted to know why the West Campus Steam plant isn't moved away from downtown State College. Engeman says the power plant was originally built close to downtown because that was where the railroad went through, which made it easier to transport supplies.

"The location of the power plant made a lot of sense then," Engeman says. "What about now?"

She also worries that switching to natural gas might create safety issues. Engeman, as well as many others in attendance, wants Penn State to invest in geothermal energy instead, partly to address safety concerns.

Johan Zwart, an engineer who has been an outspoken critic of the conversion, worries the use of natural gas could lead to a serious incident --  such as the West Fertilizer Company ammonium nitrate explosion in West, Texas.

"Accidents happen no matter how secure [a site] is," Zwart says. "Common sense planning can help avoid that. "

Penn State is converting its plant to natural gas to comply with state and national environmental standards. The university wants to build two new natural gas boilers while converting two coal burners to use only natural gas.

Resident William Hechinger says Penn State should look at alternative ways to save money with energy and heating. Hechinger says Penn State should seriously look at replacing the windows in Penn State buildings with more energy efficient windows.

Hechinger says most people would be surprised how much heating is lost from bad windows.

"We put money into other things," Hechinger says. "Fossil fuels could be phased out quicker. To make a 30 year commitment to gas is wrong."

Superintendent of Steam Services at Penn State's Office of Physical Plant Paul Moser says Penn State has looked at geothermal energy, and it is too expensive considering Penn State's size.

Moser also says that everything OPP does with the plant is rooted in safety, and that explosions at these plants are rare. Three safety checks are conducted daily at the plant, Moser says.

Moser also says many environmental associations approve of the way Penn State uses its plant which provides both power and hear for the university.

Penn State is currently building a new high-pressure gas pipeline which will run through campus. That pipeline was supposed to run through parts of State College Borough, but that plan sparked intense community opposition. The university switched to the on-campus route which it says added about $10 million to the project.

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Adam Lidgett is a freelance reporter who has covered news and feature stories in State College and Centre County.
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